Towards a more ethical regard for consumption

What we as ordinary people can contribute to the effort to combat climate change lies in some personal behaviours of ours that we have direct control over — our consumption habits. We just need to pause and take the time to think and reflect upon what motivates us to buy and consume the way we do. The opportunities to contribute are right under our noses.

barcodeLet us start with the not-often-highlighted dark side of the concept of “prosperity”. The amount of stuff people can ‘afford’ nowadays has grown. Take airfare, for example. In the past, frequent air travel used to be accessible only to relatively wealthy people. Now with budget airlines and all, even lower middle class people in advanced societies are able to take overseas holidays more than once a year, or fly for domestic travel instead of taking the roadtrips that used to be more of the norm in the past. Trouble is, aviation accounts for a disproportionately large amount of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere annually. It delivers a bigger impact to the environment than land transport on a per passenger-kilometre basis.

In any case, more people are able to afford cars now as well. Households with an almost one-to-one ratio of vehicles per household member are now common in advanced economies. The decline of public transport in many U.S. cities, particularly in California is the result of the lobbying power of the auto industry which practically coerced politicians to channeling funds into road building rather than on public transport infrastructure such as rail. More affordable cars resulted in the public caring less about the decline of public transport services.

I have nothing against rich people being entitled to luxury. But I have an issue with ordinary people being led to believe that they are entitled to own unnecessary stuff and consume excessively. Corporations have all but convinced people that they can have things right here and right now. There is something not right about a society that believes in that philosophy. Self-importance seems to be a human condition that shrewd marketing has so effectively exploited nowadays. There is of course a price to pay for getting things fast and cheap. And we are seeing the effects of our fast and cheap way of life today.

Then there is our ballooning numbers. Was it right for us to multiply to the numbers we see today? The U.S. for example is fed using super-species of corn that is grown using artificial fertilisers that are manufactured from fossil fuels and the runoff of these fertilisers is contributing to the degradation of water supplies. The sheer size and production volume of U.S. farms are made possible by industrialised farming techniques and machinery that burn large amounts of fossil fuel as well.

These farming technologies did contribute reducing hunger in the U.S. but then it also contributed to an increase in population to the point of complete dependence on almost irreversibly petroleum-fuelled agriculture. Softdrinks and other sweetened drinks are cheap because they are sweetened using byproducts of industrial corn production (fructose I think it is).

It’s like the way computerisation promised the advent of the paperless office. But look around today’s offices. People are not only printing and copying documents more, we are also starting to get addicted to colour printing, which consumes far more and produces larger volumes of waste products.

I don’t think there are any hard figures that tell us when consumption is excessive. But there are several principles at work around which the concept of “consumption” may be regarded:

(1) Consumption as driver of economic indicators

Exchanging goods for profit (i.e. trading in the original sense) adds value to the product of an economy (as measured by, say, the GNP or GDP). Every dollar earned in a transaction adds favourably to the Gross National Product (GNP) statistic of an economy. A person who buys a sack of rice for $5 then sells it for $8 adds $3 in “value” to the economy.

So in a sense, when lots of people are buying and selling in large quantities, as when “consumption” is said to be “healthy”, it is good for economic indicators because those activities contribute “value” to the economy. But then, what exactly is the substance behind that “value” I described above. Does the $3 in “added value” to the economy in that sack-of-rice transaction I used in the example above actually represent something tangible actually produced out of that transaction?

Multiply that a thousand fold into the aggregated way we measure “economic performance” and you will see that economies that merely exchange goods and gain profit but add little actual substance to what’s been exchanged can have as much chance to look good statistically as those economies that actually produce tangible stuff.

(2) Consumption in terms of what motivates it

Just because something is cheap or free, doesn’t mean we should wantonly consume it. Chairs and tables were once highly prized because the labour that went into building them was very tangible — you either built them yourself or you bought them from the village furniture maker who you personally know. Today, chairs and tables are manufactured by the millions in highly mechanised factories somewhere in China. They can be bought for just a hundredth of the cost of the furniture that our great grandparents used.

Whereas our great grandparents cherished their furniture and used them for years (even passing them to the next generation), we see ours today as mere fashion statements at worst. They last a few years and even if they are still good enough to use, we don’t think much of disposing of them to buy a the latest trendy set when it suits us. That’s because we can. But the question is, should we?

Today’s chairs and tables come cheap because our financial/monetary system tells us they are cheap. Trouble is, the financial system has been found to be incomplete as a scorekeeper of value and cost. It fails to account for the cost to the environment that our ability to manufacture stuff by the millions levies on Mother Nature. Because these millions of tables and chairs are “cheap” we dispose of them in larger quantities after shorter and shorter times of use. Our ability to manufacture in great quantities is enabled by our dependence on fossil fuels and our lack of accounting for the cost of disposing these throw-away products. Compare that to a time when no such manufacturing prowess existed and people had to hand-make stuff only in quantities that meet their needs.

So are we really improving our lot overall? Or are we simply improving the efficiency at which we consume — and waste?

(3) Consumption as an inherent property of our civilisation

No one element in the overall economic system is to blame for our predisposition to consume excessively. Indeed, it is not something we can pinpoint to one entity in our civilisation. Rather, this characteristic is the heart of the very nature of our civilisation itself.

In other words, what we see is the emergent behaviour of the whole system. All the individual properties and characteristics of each individual component come together to contribute to an overall set of behaviours and properties that don’t necessarily link back in a straightforward manner to any particular component.

But then there are basic relationships that we can isolate (but not necessarily use as an oversimplification of the issue):

(1) corporations’ goal is to make a profit and enrich its shareholders;

(2) consumers want nice things and status on top of the basic necessities they need to live; and,

(3) corporations respond to what consumers want and consumers respond to how corporations influence their tastes.

The challenge for us is to see this vicious cycle of consumption for what it is and somehow step out of it to the extent that we do not subsume ourselves into the behaviour of the system excessively.

To some extent, there are already regulations in place to curtail corporate power (e.g. false advertising laws, disclosure requirements, etc.) so that the thin line between influencing and misleading in their marketing campaigns is not crossed. However, there are no such regulatory frameworks to govern consumer behaviour, and corporations are getting more creative at designing their ad/marketing campaigns to work around regulations or exploit loopholes. So the onus is on us as individuals to develop a more ethical regard to the way we consume.

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6 Comments on “Towards a more ethical regard for consumption”

  1. “To some extent, there are already regulations in place to curtail corporate power (e.g. false advertising laws, disclosure requirements, etc.) so that the thin line between influencing and misleading in their marketing campaigns is not crossed. However, there are no such regulatory frameworks to govern consumer behaviour, and corporations are getting more creative at designing their ad/marketing campaigns to work around regulations or exploit loopholes.”

    There IS a regulatory framework. It’s called the law of supply and demand. Look around us. Reality will demonstrate that, all opportunities being equal, REPUTATION NOT REGULATION protects the consumer better.

    You don’t trust big business. Fair enough. Corporations are out to get something from us: our money. So, you’re especially skeptical of their motives; you’re on the lookout for those whom you can trust and whom you can’t.

    The one thing we need to get our brains around is that this is actually a GOOD thing. To get our money, businesses need to give us EXACTLY what we want — AND do it better than the competition. COMPETITION between companies struggling to maintain their reputation works better than regulation.

    You’re incensed by ‘branding.’ A lot of people automatically assume that we are brainwashed by brand names and enticed to spend money on trash.

    Brands are actually pretty useful. I don’t mean that corporations operate out of love or goodwill. But the marketplace offers us CHOICE — and each company knows this. Recognisable logos tell customers what to expect. Branding tells me that I should purchase a more expensive air-tight storage container manufactured in Vietnam and/or South Korea instead of the poorly made Chinese version pitched locally by Judy Ann Santos; the Korean brand has a reputation for quality. There’s an uproar about how heartless companies are, but think about how easy it is for CUSTOMERS to abandon brand loyalty if we get shoddy merchandise even once from a company. A company only maintains the value of its brand by maintaining quality; by constantly innovating and KEEPING PRICES DOWN. Because responsible companies need to protect their brands, customers — consumers — eventually come out on top.

    There is no denying that some companies perpetrate fraud. We DO need protection from reckless businessmen. But the best, most effective, way to provide that is: market discipline. Fraud (along with theft) should be policed and punished. It’s one of the crimes that must be prevented for the market to function. Once that’s in place, however, honesty pretty much takes care of itself.

    Unfortunately, that isn’t what we have in the Philippines. We have protected markets and crony capitalism. An economy that bars the entrance of new players for the benefit of a small oligarchy that insinuates itself in local politics. That is the result of a desire to ‘regulate’ consumer behaviour — a hegemony of the very few to impose rules on millions of different people. That’s the problem.

    When PILTEL was the only cellular network in town, handsets cost an arm and a leg. Then Globe came in and prices dropped dramatically. And then competition with Smart allowed people who had been waiting for thirty years for a land line to suddenly have cellular phone service. When Sun came into the picture, the number of cell phone users skyrocketed even more. That kind of competition protects consumers best. People and businesses interacting generate fairer rules than the state when they leave us alone. And if we don’t screw it up, it will even produce growth.

    1. Actually you need to step a bit further back than that. Competition is good in the sense that it does protect consumers by keeping prices low and penalizing low quality goods and services. Brands and advertising serve to provide consumers information to make their purchasing choices. I have no argument against that.

      The point of this article is around the overall continued absolute increase in consumption. Competition forces down prices and drives increased efficiency with which we produce stuff and extract resources from the environment to serve as input to that production. Those efficiencies make these goods and services more accessible to an increasingly bigger proportion of the population; i.e. turning a bigger and bigger percentage of humanity into the *consumers* Big Corporate salivate over.

      These are all mere internal dynamics of the systems that is our civilization which extracts material from the environment on one end and outputs rubbish and carbon on the other. When you view that from that level of abstraction, you will find that our species constitute one big planet eating machine — as I said in my article, the *emergent* outcome of all our activities. We may be getting more efficient, but our absolute consumption increases nonetheless.

      So what I question is the way we use this efficiency. Do we harvest the savings? Or do we squander it by consuming more? As I wrote, “Just because something is cheap or free, doesn’t mean we should wantonly consume it.”

      Same principle as automotive safety devices. They may increase your chances of surviving a crash. But just because this is so does not mean you should drive unnecessarily faster.

      1. IMHO it will depend on the product, for example a refrigerator and an air conditioner should be replaced after 5 to 10 years due to the reason that the newer models are more energy efficient and the motor/mechanism that drives them degrade over time, thus consuming more electricity. It will almost be the same for lighting (CFL to LED), transportation (carburetor to EFI), etc.

  2. If you can distinguish, what you need, and what you want. Then, you will be able to navigate thru this consumer oriented civilization. We are a “throw-away” civilization. In rich industrialized countries; they throw away: appliances, furnitures,electronic products, etc…because they are of obsolete models. Wealthy people want to buy the latest models. While, this seems to be a wasteful act. People with money; have all the right to use their wealth to enjoy life. You work your “Butt Out”…you need also rest and recration, for yourself; and your family…As long as there are consumers; manufacturers will always manufacture fancy products, to make money; and increase their profits…

  3. France has come up with a SMALL, but potentially large, way to be nice to Momma earth….each year they issue burlap bags to the French citizens who then bring those burlap bags to the grocery store and the citizens then transport the groceries they buy from the store to their home….and the next time they go to the grocery store, THEY BRING THE SAME BURLAP BAG back with them.
    Imagine how many of those dumber than shit, carbon gas creating plastic bags would not be used if EVERY single country on earth stopped using them? Count how many of those plastic bags you carry to and from the mall/grocery store all year and multiply that times,what?, 50 million…it is staggering. Then go to a landfill one sunny day and stand near some of those nasty plastic bags that is roasting in the sun and you can feel the heat they are generating/releasing as harmful green-house gases back into the atmosphere. It does not have to happen and it shouldn’t be happening. Something could be done,immediately!
    The Philippines could also get rid of the rambling jallopee’s/shit-boxes-on-wheels that clog its streets and spew nothing but black smoke into the air the second the driver steps on the accelerator, but it doesn’t. Start recycling on a national scale, like the E.U./U.S.A..
    Enough of bashing the West, clean up your own backyard….it could benefit everyone.

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